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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal


As I review the titles that seem to stand out strongly so far…  I note a LOT of previous medal winners (Kadohata, Williams-Garcia, Appelt, DiCamillo, Henkes, Spinelli, Choldenko, Vanderpool…), and common favorites (Ursu, Urban, Pennypacker…).  This always gives me pause.  The committee is able to read broadly enough, they can level that “star” effect, but when we are trying to pay attention to what people are paying attention to…it gets murky. It’s especially hard to find the stand-out debut works, since they tend not to receive stand-out marketing (unless they can be made to look like the next Rowling-Meyers-Riordan).

I spot only two debuts so far in our October Nominations.  Both got glowing, but no starred reviews in the major journals; both have gotten a lot of attention at my own local reviewing group.

BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle.  Arguably a little better marketed than the classic lost-in-the-shuffle debut that I’m picturing, I’ve started to hear about this book every time I turn around.   I still haven’t read it, but it’s creeping to the top of my to-read list. I’m always interested in looking at titles that appear to be a little more “fun” than the stereotypical Newbery.

ZEBRA FOREST by Adina Rishe Gewirtz.  This one is getting some Goodreads love.  I read it quite a while ago and had little enthusiasm for it for Newbery then, but in retrospect, and especially in comparison to others we’ve been discussing, I’m recalling a tightly drawn sense of setting, mood, and tension that are memorable.  I think that some of the motivation on which the suspense depends didn’t quite click for me, but I’d like to hear more from fans of this one.

What other debut works should we all have our eyes on?


Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I liked ZEBRA FOREST for all the things that Nina mentioned, but the plot revolves around the nifty conveniences of the father being incarcerated so close to home and the grandmother’s complete withholding of information. I also felt like the symbolism of the title was a bit forced when it came up repeatedly in the narrative. A nice discussion book, but not one I can get serious about.

    I haven’t read BETTER NATE THAN EVER, but it’s on my radar. Other debuts I’m hoping to tackle soonish . . .

    SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY by Karen Harrington . . . Three starred reviews for this year’s Spunky/Quirky/Feisty Girl with a Southern/Country/Folksy Voice and a Dead/Absent/Missing Mother.

    THE ADVENTURES OF THE SOUTH POLE POLE PIG by Chris Kurtz . . . Move over Wilbur and Babe, there’s a new pig in town. The reviews indicate the audience for this book overlaps with our Beginning Chapter Book Audience. That is, perhaps we should be comparing this one to THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER? Two starred reviews.

    ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein . . . This not a true debut, not even a chiidren’s debut (since Grabenstein co-authored some of James Patterson’s books), but I think it’s the first children’s book he’s written solo. And it’s got two starred reviews. And pays homage to THE WESTING GAME? I’m in.

    IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE by Eric Gansworth . . . I’d hoped to read this one by the time we discussed GHOST HAWK so we could have a comparative discussion (perhaps including Helen Frost’s SALT, too). This one has a starred review from Booklist and has been favorably compared to THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN.

    • I have a whole slew of horror books Chris Grabenstein wrote for middle grade.

    • Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is my favorite book of the year so far. It is definitely more plot driven than character, which seems to be the opposite of most Newbery books. I think this book is one that kids could easily get into because it is just so fun. I think the lack of depth of character is what is going to put it out of Newbery contention. It has been a few months since I read the book though.

      I think of it as Westing Game meets Willy Wonka.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Destinee Sutton nominated TWERP which is Mark Goldblatt’s “first book for younger readers.” I enjoyed this book. It reminded me a little of OKAY FOR NOW. (Actually, after some googling, it looks like Destinee has also made that comparison.)

  3. Sara Ralph says:

    I enjoyed Rump by Liesl Shurtliff, but the “rump” jokes got old.

    I gave Zebra Forest 5 stars on Goodreads. It does suffer from plot points that are hard for the reader to accept.

  4. I finished ZEBRA FOREST last night and while I thought it was a strong debut, I don’t know that it would make my top list. As Nina said, it shines in mood and has palpable tension. Some of the characters are sharply drawn, and I liked that the relationships between the adults was a lot more showing than telling. But I never saw Rew as a real person, but rather as a foil to Annie’s reaction to Andrew Snow. The massive coincidence that sparks off the rest of the book was also a bit hard to swallow. Once I just accepted it, I liked the book a lot more, but the entire book relies so heavily on both that first coincidence and on Gran’s extreme overreaction years earlier that means the police will not be following up with the family, that its difficult in the final analysis of the plot to discount how the tiniest factor would make the whole book fall apart.

  5. Zebra Forest is one of the 7 books that we’ll be discussing this year in Cincinnati (yeah, we’re expanding!), but your points are well-taken… LOTS of coincidence in this one. But all the same, this one has stuck with me for a long time. This is a title that is dripping with atmosphere and tension… a definite page-turner. I think the kid characters are pretty well-done, and the adult characters – while a little murkier (the aforementioned grandma especially) – are decent as well. But yes, I’ll be interested to hear what the folks at our discussion have to say about the domino effect of all those random chance happenings working together.

  6. One of my favorite books read this year (at the start) was Jinx, by Sage Blackwood. The setting of the magic forest was outstanding. The characters were great, and I loved the exploration of good and bad in the same characters. By the ending, I didn’t think it was quite Newbery quality, if I remember right it was from the plot. But definitely a strong debut.

    • I agree about Jinx. I loved the book and could not put it down. While I really liked it, and thought it was well written, I didn’t think that it would get much Newbery attention.

    • I really enjoyed JINX, and was also particularly impressed with the idea of what makes someone, even a witch or wizard, “good” or “bad”. I didn’t feel that the trio of friends was quite as strong as Jinx’s family, particularly Reven, (aka the jerk with a thing for axes). While Elfwyn’s curse strengthens her as a character, Reven’s curse just sets us up for a sequal. As in some other books this year *coughNAVIGATINGEARLYcough*, I think the quest weakened what was successful about the first 2/3rds of the book. Definitely a good book, with many qualities worth discussing at the Newbery table. But if a Fantasy theme is recognized this year, I think REAL BOY and FAR, FAR AWAY are more distinguished.

  7. Hello everyone! I haven’t read the other books Nina mentioned, but I did read Zebra Forest, and I have to say I would dismiss it out of hand myself because of its contrived nature. I don’t know that I would bring it out of the woodwork into Newbery consideration because of how it compares to what else is available this year. I found the atmosphere and the sense of dread compelling. The plot is also very original and will speak to the right reader who needs this book, but it relies on too many coincidences, as Jonathan says. It also has a lot of holes in the plot and setup. I also found the resolution a little too easy, even though it doesn’t wrap up entirely neatly. It’s a great book. I just don’t think it merits a truly excellent rating.

    • I really adore Gansworth’s book. As you’ll read in it, I was important in helping him meet his editor at Scholastic. After that initial intro, I didn’t hear anything for a long long time and figured it hadn’t worked out. But then I learned of the galley. And when I read it, I was taken by it. No way to compare it to GHOST HAWK or SALT. They’re too different in too many ways.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Yes, Gansworth’s IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE is a wonderful book; and more comparable to Gantos or Schmidt, really, than to GHOST HAWK or SALT. A great read. I’m not sure that it jumps to the top of my Newbery list, but I do recommend it highly.

  8. BETTER NATE THAN EVER was simply a blast. I listened to it quite a while ago and at first thought it was a little old for Newbery I was most of way through when I realized it was dead on age wise. I was along for the ride and didn’t pay much attention criteria wise.

    I had the same issues with ZEBRA FOREST. The author could have easily maneuvered the father coming to the house for a legit reason, (maybe it had been a summer vacation home or a dead realitives). It’s a shame she stayed with the big coincidence.

  9. TeenReader says:

    Even though I think it may not rise to the level of “most distinguished”, BETTER NATE THAN EVER is about as hilarious and delightful as anything I’ve read this year. As I picked it up to reread some
    of my favorite passages, I was surprised to see how emotionally honest and heartbreaking it could be. Plus, it’s pretty rare that I can indulge my theater geek side and book geek side at the same time. As far as other debuts go, I loved THE HIDDEN SUMMER. Though she’s written adult novels, Gin Phillips is new to children’s books. Her novel has what I consider to be the most sharply delineated characters of the year. Her nuanced, thoughtful prose really let the characters and their relationships shine in a way that felt remarkably true to life. I’m hoping it has a chance as a dark horse contender!

  10. Despite it not being among my favorites for Newbery, there is a whole lot to like in THE VINE BASKET by Josanne LaValley, my so-far favorite debut of the year.

  11. I was so excited to see the cover of BETTER NATE THAN EVER when I opened Heavy Medal this morning, but most of the content and comments here are about ZEBRA FOREST (which I didn’t love). I read Better Nate a couple months ago and don’t remember much more than what I said in my nomination, which was this:
    “This book is funny and smart. I was rooting so hard for Nate and his character has stuck with me — the levity doesn’t take away from the character development at all; in fact, it adds to it. I loved the style too — 100% appropriate for this particular book. And as someone who lives in NY myself, I appreciated the setting as well, and the outsider’s perspective on the city.”

    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on Better Nate specifically as they pertain to Newbery criteria.

  12. ZEBRA FOREST – This book just didn’t ring true for me. I thought the writing was somewhat stilted, which applies to the characters and their reactions to each other as well. I also thought the author focused too much on the adults and treated the children as ancillary to the plot.

    As opposed to JINX….which I loved almost as much as last year’s THE FALSE PRINCE. Maybe it will get the same reward – a CYBIL win (which factors in reader appeal)

    ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY was just all around bland – disappointing since it seems to have been written as a paean to libraries…

  13. I enjoyed the bejeesus out of BETTER NATE THAN EVER. I wonder if I’m placing it too low in my rankings because it was so much fun.

    • That’s exactly where I am. One of the most enjoyable books I read this year, but I wasn’t thinking about Newbery at all when I read it. Should re-read it for Newbery criteria, especially because I like when a somewhat lighter book wins an Honor or Medal. It may have had a little too much wish-fulfillment, perhaps? but I loved the specificity of the things that happened at the auditions – quite original. The auditions in general seemed pretty realistic (having seen some of them from a parent’s perspective, though not on Broadway) and nicely delineated. Nate is a terrific character and I was very glad to hear there’s a sequel coming.

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